Perhaps due to reading some books on the Women’s Prize longlist this year, I found myself craving a good family saga, one which I could get lost in for hours. Coupled with Daphne Du Maurier being one of my favourite writers, her debut The Loving Spirit was the obvious choice. Based on real people, the novel follows four generations of the Coombe family: Janet, Joseph, Christopher, and Jennifer. It opens with Janet Coombe, a young woman in love with the sea. Despite her longing to climb onboard a boat and explore the waters, Janet instead marries Thomas, a local ship builder and starts a family. The next section follows her son Joseph – whom Janet had a particular affinity to – and the novel follows her descendants over the years.
Du Maurier has always excelled at characterisation and The Loving Spirit provides more evidence of that. Janet in particular was an incredibly engaging character; she was brimming with so much personality that it hard to dislike her. Through Janet the reader also explores the Cornish towns, a landscape readers of Du Maurier will be familiar with. She beautifully captures the busy ports and ship-building enterprises at the time, placing the reader right in the heart of the action. In her review of the novel Ann Willmore compares the depictions of Cornwall and Janet and Joseph to Wuthering Heights’ Yorkshire moors and lead characters. An interesting comparison, though it is Du Maurier’s descriptions of the sea and Janet’s relationship that I think more closely resemble the Brontes. Like Janet (and later Joseph) the sea is seen as this wild, passionate, relentless persona; a character in its own right. The mirroring of the natural world and the characters was well done.
However, some characters didn’t work for me. Whilst admittedly Christopher has the most satisfying storyline in the entire novel, a lot of the time I was quite bored during his chapters. The plot seems to flirt dangerously close to melodrama, especially combined with the dramatic, Heathcliff-esque way Joseph’s section ended. Given the novel started out with a young couple getting married in a small seaside town, The Loving Spirit veers into soap opera territory remarkably quickly. Despite the dramatic plot, Christopher didn’t seem to have much of a personality especially in comparison with his father and grandmother. It did feel as though Du Maurier enjoyed writing about the first two characters and the last one Jennifer, but Christopher was just the bridge to get to the final chapters. For such a dynamic plot, Christopher felt like a very weak character and he seemed to get lost in the narrative. Another character which didn’t work for me was Philip. He is the main antagonist in the story and that was it. Right off the bat, it was apparent he was ‘the bad guy’ and continued to be one-note throughout. He just simply wasn’t developed and felt like wasted potential, considering he is in conflict with his own family.
Is The Loving Spirit one of my favourite Du Maurier novels? No. It doesn’t have the twists and turns of Rebecca and Jamaica Inn nor the sweeping romance of Frenchman’s Creek. Nor even the sheer inventiveness of something like The House on the Strand. Yet the book is an enjoyable family drama, and an impressive debut. Seeds of those later works were already being sown and there are aspects of each of them in The Loving Spirit. It isn’t the first Du Maurier I would push into peoples’ hands, but if they are already a fan of hers I can definitely see them enjoying it. With interesting characters and beautiful descriptions of the Cornish landscape, it is hard not to get sucked in.
The Loving Spirit is published by Virago and you can find more information here.